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Panel rejects Christie's Supreme Court nominee

TRENTON - In January, Gov. Christie named the nation's only openly gay African American Republican mayor as a nominee to the state Supreme Court, marking an extraordinary moment in New Jersey history.

Chatham Mayor Bruce Harris was rejected by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Mel Evans / AP)
Chatham Mayor Bruce Harris was rejected by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Mel Evans / AP)Read more

TRENTON - In January, Gov. Christie named the nation's only openly gay African American Republican mayor as a nominee to the state Supreme Court, marking an extraordinary moment in New Jersey history.

The Democrats' rejection Thursday of that nominee, Bruce Harris, may have been even more extraordinary.

After he denied tenure to the court's only African American justice, John Wallace of Gloucester County, Democrats had pushed Christie for a "diverse" nominee, saying it was his obligation to offer a jurist who could bring another perspective to the now all-white court.

In Harris, the mayor of Chatham, Christie did that twice over. If approved, he would have become the third African American ever appointed and the first who is openly gay. Harris described in his confirmation hearing Thursday how his family faced racism in Iowa, where he grew up. In New Jersey, he said, he found a place that welcomed him and his partner of 32 years.

But Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including minorities and those who have advocated for gay rights, were not swayed by what Harris had to offer. In a nearly 41/2-hour session, they seized on his statement that he would recuse himself from a same-sex marriage case that could land before the high court, and framed him as a lightweight lawyer unqualified for the job.

Harris fell by the same vote count, 7-6, that two months earlier derailed the nomination of Phillip Kwon, a Korean immigrant whom Christie had picked for another seat. They are the only two gubernatorial Supreme Court nominees to be rejected by the Legislature since the state constitution was ratified in 1947.

At a news conference after the vote, Christie angrily described the hearing as a "political assassination."

"They never thought that I would come forward with two diverse candidates who happen to be Republicans," Christie said. "Once I ruined their plans, they had to come up with reasons to knock these guys off." During his campaign to have Kwon confirmed, Christie had characterized him as an independent, though others pointed out that he was registered as a Republican while living in New York.

During the hearing, Harris explained the rationale for his recusal from any case designed to test the constitutionality of same-sex unions.

Since he had sent an e-mail to his legislators in 2009 supporting same-sex marriage, it would be inappropriate to vote on the matter as a justice, he said. His decision was made without consulting Christie, who vetoed a bill allowing gay marriage, he said.

"My decision to recuse myself was much more concerned with how the public would view the court and the decision in the same-sex marriage case if I were to participate," he said.

Democrats didn't buy his explanation.

"Imagine if every Supreme Court justice were to recuse themselves on every personal matter," Sen. Nellie Pou (D., Passaic) said.

The gay-rights group Garden State Equality, which had endorsed Harris, rolled back its support because of Harris' answers.

"Though I so very much wanted Mayor Harris to make it onto the court and make history, his answers on recusal today were nonsensical," Steven Goldstein, chairman of the group, said in a statement. "Because of that, no one, including us members of the LGBT community, could possibly fault any senator on the committee for voting his or her conscience, including voting no on the nomination."

Sen. Nia Gill (D., Essex), the only African American on the committee, went so far as to bring up the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice.

"What would have happened if Thurgood Marshall said, 'I want to be on the Supreme Court, and I don't want to hear any cases with respect to civil rights'?" she asked.

Christie later said Gill's comment "took the prize" on a "day of just ridiculous, reprehensible conduct."

Senators portrayed Harris as a hypocrite by revealing a 2010 e-mail he sent to Christie while Harris was a councilman in Chatham, in Morris County. The e-mail expressed his view that job descriptions should not be part of collective-bargaining agreements with public employee unions.

Under questioning, Harris said he would not recuse himself on collective-bargaining issues, despite having expressed the opinion before taking the bench. On collective bargaining, he took a position as an elected official representing constituents, he said. His recusal on gay issues would be because his opinion was expressed as an individual describing his personal experience as a man in a committed relationship with another man, he said.

Democrats also asked Harris, a finance lawyer, why he had never tried a case, written a scholarly law article, made partner at his firms, or done anything more complicated than write boilerplate contracts. The gist was that he was a middling lawyer, unfit to rule on issues with wide policy implications, such affordable housing and school funding, in the highest court in the state.

Harris said that he had worked in a complex area of law and would offer a unique legal perspective now absent from the court.

"The drafting of legal loan documents demands the same kind of intellectual rigor that a litigator applies when writing briefs, or that a judge applies when writing opinions," Harris testified.

About his lack of courtroom experience, he said: "Direct familiarity that lawyers may have in trial courts is helpful, but not mandatory."

Christie called questions about Harris' experience a "red herring." Many justices past and present haven't had litigation experience, he said.

"Democrats decided that merit doesn't actually matter, that intellect doesn't actually matter, that temperament doesn't actually matter - and that diversity doesn't actually matter, either," he said. "The only thing that matters is politics."

When three partners from Harris' firm testified on his behalf, Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), chairman of the committee, asked them how much their firm earns from government work in Chatham. After revealing that it is paid $6,000 to $8,000 a month, they returned to their seats without further questions.

There are two open seats on the seven-member court, and with Christie steadfastly refusing to appoint even one Democrat, a long stalemate could be in store. According to Trenton tradition, he said, he is entitled to four Republican justices, and there are now only two. Democrats insist that Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, a registered independent, is really a Republican because she worked for GOP governors and contributed to GOP candidates. Two more Republicans would bring the GOP tally to five, they say.

Despite the fact that Harris must have realized his nomination was doomed, he remained calm and soft-spoken, and even laughed. His partner, Marc Boisclair, sat stone-faced in the front row.

Harris, 61, one of 12 children, recalled a childhood in which neighbors signed a petition against his family after it moved to Iowa. He described earning an M.B.A., working for AT&T, and, at 38, entering Yale Law School.

He vowed that if confirmed, he would "set an example for others who felt excluded because of their differences, to demonstrate to them that it does get better," his words echoing the popular slogan of a campaign to support young people experiencing antigay harassment.

"The very fact that Bruce Harris was sacrificed in the name of politics is a dishonor to this institution," Christie said. "And once again, [Democrats] have smeared a good person, his career, his character, and his experience."